NEWS: Housing Matters launches COVID-19 Response Fund in anticipation of increased need

The non-profit’s crisis response is paving the way for long-term growth, with the support of the community

Update (April 20, 2020): We are so inspired by our community. We’ve raised $410,000 toward our original $250,000 goal. Every single dollar is going to work immediately to support Housing Matters clients through this crisis. We’re still taking donations; every dollar helps. You can see what we’re doing with the funds throughout our coronavirus postings. Sign up for our newsletter for more detailed updates. THANK YOU!

April 2, 2020

Housing Matters announced last week the launch of their new COVID-19 Response Fund. They are asking the Santa Cruz County community to support the non-profit as it responds to the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the local homeless population. The new fund has a goal of raising $250,000; $220,000 has already been raised, as of April 1.

People experiencing homelessness are among our most vulnerable neighbors, even without the presence of a global public health crisis. Housing Matters serves the local homeless population with four distinct shelters, case management, housing navigation, and day services like showers and a mailroom. In total, the organization — which is the largest local non-profit working exclusively on homelessness — serves over 2,500 people per year. 

“All the data that shows that unhoused people are, as a group, much more medically vulnerable than the housed population,” said Phil Kramer, Housing Matters Executive Director. “The average lifespan is about 30 years shorter, and people experiencing homelessness have considerably higher rates of physical and mental health issues.”

The homeless population is especially vulnerable in this pandemic, Kramer explained, because they can’t self isolate and shelter in place the same way the housed population in Santa Cruz County can. 

The CDC and the State of California both recognize these realities and have even issued separate guidelines for people experiencing homelessness. In California, for example, unhoused individuals are exempt from the shelter in place order.

“Sure, it’s great that unhoused people won’t be breaking the law by not hunkering down in a home they don’t actually have,” said Tom Stagg, director of programs at Housing Matters. “But at the same time, they’re some of the most vulnerable people in California; they need to be protected from exposure to coronavirus just as much — if not more — as the rest of us.”

Even for individuals and families who have space in a shelter, following social distancing guidelines can be a challenge. Kramer explained that the State of California has issued special guidelines for homeless shelters, recommending that shelters ensure all beds are at least three feet apart. This differs from the 6-foot social distance guidelines everyone is being encouraged to maintain, and takes into consideration the realities of shelter life.

“Not all of our shelters have three feet between beds,” said Housing Matters Assistant Director of Programs, Evyn Simpson. “We’re taking the guidelines very seriously, and were able to mobilize changes to our shelter layouts quickly.”

Simpson, who oversees the shelter programs at Housing Matters, emphasized that moving clients around is not a simple process. She noted that all shelter space on campus is used as efficiently as possible, so reorganizing shelter beds takes a fair amount of coordination and creativity. 

Is this sort of quick action that’s prompted Housing Matters to set up their new COVID-19 Response Fund. Their goal is to raise $250,000 to offset lost income from their canceled spring fundraiser, and build a buffer so decisions can be made quickly.

In a recent email to Housing Matters’ donors, Kramer explained:

“Any hesitation could have severe human consequences. In order to be decisive and act swiftly, Housing Matters needs the funds in the bank before we can make those moves … The public health and human services landscape is moving at light speed right now. Making decisions quickly, without fear of how we’ll pay for the work, may save the lives of people on the streets and in our shelter programs. We don’t yet know the full extent of the measures we’ll need to take to get through this crisis safe and healthy. We do know that we are already on the front lines and are ready for action when those details take shape.”

Housing Matters has seen a strong start toward its $250,000 goal, which has allowed the organization to quickly manage some of the most immediate challenges.

To meet the shelter bed spacing guidance, the non-profit has set up ten tents on campus, and has 20 more on order. Outfitting the tents to be comfortable, safe, warm sleeping quarters — all under intense time pressure — has been no small feat, but they were able to get the tents up and running last Friday.

Another immediate need that they’ve successfully met is an isolation space for shelter residents who present with COVID-19 symptoms. As one of the first steps in response preparedness, Housing Matters identified a 5-bedroom house on their campus that could be used for isolation. 

“It took a lot of coordination with clients, but they were all very amenable to working with us on a solution,” said Simpson. “It was an all-hands effort, and our staff stepped up and made sure we got everything situated in a timely fashion; it was critical that we have a space for isolation before it was actually needed.”

Moving forward, Housing Matters is anticipating additional preparations for worst case scenarios, expansion of services, and working closely with the City and County on how together they can best serve the entire local unhoused population. As resources come down from the State of California, local agencies are working to efficiently and rapidly make use of funding. Stagg is serving on the County’s COVID-19 Homelessness Task Force, which is working on countywide plans to care for the homeless population during the crisis. 

Housing Matters reports that they’ve already raised $220,000 toward their $250,000 goal, just a week after making their first ask. Kramer said he’s heartened by the community support, and feels a combination of gratitude and great urgency as they move forward.

The silver lining for the organization and the local population of people seeking shelter is that the community support in response to the crisis has put existing plans into overdrive. For example, Housing Matters is currently working on expanding the capacity of the Paul Lee Loft, its shelter for individual adults, by over 50%.

“We were expecting the Loft expansion to take several more months, at best,” said Simpson. “But it’s imperative that we shelter as many people as possible during this crisis.” She explained that this expansion is not temporary; new shelter residents can expect the same case management and commitment to finding housing as current Loft residents.

Kramer, who leads strategic coordination efforts with the City and County, said the Loft expansion project was expected to take much longer due to coordination and funding, and the extra time that comes with involving multiple agencies. But with the funding coming into the COVID-19 Response Fund, the non-profit is able to act more quickly, and bring in City and County resources along the way.

The City has been quick to support the necessary changes at Housing Matters, too. They’ve changed traffic flow — closing the westbound lane — on Coral Street to allow for additional staging, sheltering, and other response needs.

“The community’s response to this crisis has already paved the path to something tremendous,” said Kramer. “With the funding we’ve received in such a short amount of time, we’ve been able to make sustainable and scalable moves that position us for bigger and better things. We’re able to double down on our mission and help get more people into permanent housing.”

Kramer noted that the details of what’s next for Housing Matters are still in the works, but they expect the coming months to be a period of growth for the organization.

The community can donate to the COVID-19 Response Fund by visiting Housing Matters reminds the community that this is an unrestricted fund, and all donations will go immediately to work to help people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County.